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Destination: Managua
Seis Continentes / Summer 2001

By Larry Luxner

Managua is unique among all Latin American capitals in that this thriving city of 1.5 million inhabitants has no downtown. That's because most of Managua's buildings collapsed in the 1972 earthquake that killed over 20,000 people, and for one reason or another were never rebuilt.

Even so, a city tour is highly recommended. Nicaragua Adventures, one of the country's leading tour operators, offers a well-organized, three-hour excursion that takes in all of Managua's important sites (prices range from $70 for one person down to $35 each for three people).

If you choose to see Managua on your own, take a five-minute taxi ride from the Inter-Continental Managua -- one of the few buildings to have survived the earthquake -- down to the lakefront boulevard known as the Malecón. Here, a variety of typical restaurants and cantinas cling to the shores of breezy Lake Managua (also known as Lago Xolotlan).

Across the street is the modern Teatro Nacional Rubén Dario, named after Nicaragua's most famous poet. The building was recently reconstructed and is due to open in mid-February.

In this area are three monuments worth noting. The first is a statue honoring South American liberator Simón Bolívar, similar to those found in many Latin American capitals. The second is another honoring Pope John Paul II, unveiled in mid-2000. The third, erected by the Sandinista regime during the 1980s, is much more uniquely Nicaraguan. It depicts a Marxist holding up a rifle, above an often-vandalized pedestal with the words "Solo los obreros y campesinos irán hasta el fin -- Only the workers and peasants will make it to the end."

You'll notice that there are skyscrapers around here, just trees and parks. It's hard to believe this was once downtown Managua. But because this area sits directly over a seismic fault line, city planners are reluctant to approve new construction. As a result, many ruins still survive the earthquake -- some with squatters living in them.

There are, however, several noteworthy buildings. Among them is the former Palacio Nacional, which was constructed between 1931 and 1935, and inaugurated by then-President Anastasio Somoza García in 1942. After the earthquake and the Sandinista revolution, the building sat in ruins for years. Then, on Jan. 6, 1997 -- with generous help from the governments of Japan, Mexico and the Netherlands -- it was inaugurated as Nicaragua's Palacio Nacional de la Cultura by President Violeta Chamorro.

As such, the historic building contains Nicaragua's most important museum. Entrance is free, but those wanting to take pictures (and that pretty much describes every tourist) must pay a 20-cordoba fee. Inside are a series of very professionally done exhibits on Nicaragua's natural history and its minerals. Visitors learn all kinds of interesting tidbits here, like the fact that Nicaragua has eight volcanic lagoons (five of them in the Managua area), and that Nicaragua is the only country in the world that has salt-water fish species swimming in fresh-water lakes. These include the bull shark and the sawfish.

In the afternoons, a large room in the museum is used to teach street kids how to make ceramics in the pre-Columbian style. Examples of this style abound in various glass cases, ranging from serpents and figurines to funerary urns and jewelry that expressed the status of its wearer and his or her place in society.

Temporary exhibits are also a feature of the museum, such as one by artist Petronio Calderón. Some 100 of his caricatures of famous people are currently on display -- including those of Ché Guevara, Yasser Arafat, Adolf Hilter, Mike Tyson, Oliver North and Bill Clinton.

After running around Managua, you might be tempted to stop somewhere for lunch. If it's Sunday, a perfect choice would be Restaurante Al di Lá, nestled up in the mountains overlooking the city. Founded four years ago by María José Argüeyo -- formerly Nicaragua's vice-minister of culture -- the restaurant is actually Ms. Argüeyo's private home, and is open to the public only on Sundays (and the rest of the week by reservation only).

Al di Lá serves five-course lunches, with a decidedly Mediterranean cuisine and Nicaraguan ingredients for $25 or its equivalent in córdobas. Foreign diplomats, business executives and members of Nicaraguan high society are frequent guests at the restaurant.

If you're in Managua for awhile and want to get out of the city, several options are available, including day trips to Masaya Volcano, the colonial city of Granada, and the inhabited islands of Lake Nicaragua. For more information, call Nicaragua Adventures in Managua at 267-0406 or (088) 37161, or visit www.nicaragua-adventures.com.

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